Weekend retreat for St. Augustine, Holy Family youth group includes sleeping outside, learning about food scarcity for others

MEMPHIS — A dozen or so young people from St. Augustine Parish in Richmond and Holy Family Parish in Memphis began their Lenten reflection supporting the needs of others by going without.

On March 9, the clustered parishes' B.O.L.D. Youth Ministry hosted a 30-hour fast to raise money for World Vision, an international nonprofit that addresses world hunger.

The retreatants went without food for 30 hours during a day of prayer, learning and team-building exercises. The retreat is designed for the youths to experience what life is like for those around the world who do not have basic resources to live.

“This is a program we did last year where the children give pledges and donations to raise money for countries with starvation and water shortages,” said Jennifer McClelland, youth minister for the two St. Clair County parishes. “After going to Mass on Saturday, they began a fast for 30 hours where we gave them water and Gatorade. They then completed challenges, like a ‘Survivor’-type situation (referencing the TV reality show where contestants live in the wild for 40 days).”

Following Mass, the retreatants made their own shelters using cardboard boxes and tarp in order to sleep outdoors.

“It wasn’t as cold as I was expecting it to be,” said 10th-grader Brennan McClelland, Jennifer's son. “We had tarps over the cardboard boxes, but it was super windy, so the tarps made noise all night. It wasn’t the same quality of sleep we are used to, so it made you feel grateful for the home you have to sleep in every night, with all those blankets and able to sleep in whatever temperature.”

Members of the youth group show off their self-made shelter at the parish, where they slept during a 30-hour fast and retreat to raise money for homeless and poor people. 

After the youths made their shelters, they took a trip down to Ste. Anne de Detroit for a “Come, Encounter Christ” event, complete with preaching and time for Eucharistic adoration.

“When we got back, we learned about what others live without, and you think long and hard about what God has given you. You open your eyes to seeing how great we have it, and how our lives are easier than others.'”

“The 'Come, Encounter Christ' and adoration of the Eucharist was the most powerful experience, I felt,” Brennan said. “It is hard to have anything trump that; it’s pretty powerful. But when we got back, we learned about what others live without, and you think long and hard about what God has given you. You open your eyes to seeing how great we have it, and how our lives are easier than others.'”

World Vision supplied materials for the retreat, including different challenges and lectures for the teens throughout the day to learn about the struggles for those in need.

“The challenges put the retreatants in the life of the people that live in these countries with extreme poverty,” Jennifer McClelland said. “There are scenario games they play where they have to prioritize what their society needs, and they learn about the difficult choices people make every day: ‘Do I work more on my shelter? Or do I spend more time getting clean water?' It puts into perspective what it means to go without.

“Some of the challenges are more physical, like holing up to two gallons of water and seeing what it would be like to carry gallons of water back to your village.”

Last year, the group raised $6,000 for World Vision. This year, the group has raised a little more than $2,500, but will be collecting throughout Lent.

“Teenagers like to compete; they like to do challenges and work together in groups. That's why they like something like this,” Jennifer McClelland said. “Toward the end of the event, there is a golden apple the winning team gets to cut up and share, kind of like a reward for making it through the retreat.”

For the retreatants, the 30-hour fast is a spiritual exercise as much as it is a physical one, giving the youths a chance to take a break from daily life to contemplate what it means to live for God, away from modern-day conveniences.

“It is easy to learn how much you have to be grateful for when you shut yourself off from it for a period of time and try to go on without,” Brennan McClelland said. “It definitely fits into the theme of Lent, but going beyond the common theme of ‘giving something up,’ it teaches you all the gifts God gives you. It opens your eyes to why we give things up, for whom we’re giving them up.

“Doing a retreat like this makes you think hard about what God has given you, what you have to be thankful for, and it opens your eyes to the needs of others.”